On Wednesday 15 June four LSO Soundhub Associates present a composer-curated evening of music at LSO St Luke's. We recently caught up with two of the four, Alex Groves and Joe Bates, to find out more about their creations, compositional style and their experiences working with the LSO. Read on to find out more.
Can you tell us about your piece?
Alex Groves: My piece is called Four Forms (Horizon) and it’s a kind of sonic sculpture garden of interwoven lines and ever-changing vistas. I take a lot of inspiration from visual art, especially that of sculptors like Barbara Hepworth and Richard Serra whose works have both a very powerful physical presence but also a surprising sense of fluidity and suppleness.
For this piece, I’m imagining each performer as their own entity within the space. Their music is all connected by the same DNA but each one goes on their own journey through the piece. As it progresses, different elements come into focus with your ears (and your eyes) being drawn from player to player. It should feel like you’re experiencing these four elements both on their own and in dialogue with each other, as if you’re walking between them and seeing each one anew as your perspective changes.
Joe Bates: Straight Line Through A Landscape was inspired by a series of YouTube videos called ‘The Straight Line Mission’ by YouTuber Thomas George Davies (AKA GeoWizard). Davies attempts to cross countries in a perfectly straight line, drawn on Google maps and followed using a GPS. This forces him to cross rivers, leap hedgerows, and commit frequent acts of trespass. Watching Davies run from farmers or struggle through Christmas tree plantations is gripping, but it also reveals something of the nature of a landscape, how it resists the neatness of a straight line through its topography and customs.
Here, my analogy becomes torturous: I can only promise you that it is, honestly, what the series reminded me of. I am doing a PhD, focusing on tuning systems. When building new tonalities, a lot of time is spent making numbers line up to produce beautiful, fictitious chords. These speculative geographies then encounter the real world through performance, where they are transformed by our ears, our muscle memories, and our instruments. Davies’ straight lines across a map thus reminded me of a smooth glissando across pitch space: one may imagine it as a perfectly straight line, but it is shaped by the topography and customs of music just as surely Davies’ journeys.
This analogy had been with me for some time. I started a sketch for an electronic glissando with ensemble last year, and quickly gave up: the sonority of the electronics was never right. The metaphor sat in a draw until December last year. I was preparing for an event that required water-tuned bottles. I thought that two demijohns I picked up second-hand might work, so I filled one with water and used a siphon to drain it, striking the vessel to test the pitches. I was thrilled with this sound. Each vessel had two primary pitches, not one, and the relationship between these pitches changed as the water level moved. This dense, complex glissando felt just right for the landscape piece.
I then developed a more complete set up: four glass vessels of 5 to 23 litres in capacity sit on a table. They are filled with 25 litres of water and connected by siphon tubes. These siphons mean that if a vessel is raised, water will flow from it into the other vessels until the water is level across the whole system. As the water flows, the pitch changes.
This piece, Straight Line Through A Landscape, consists of six quasi-ceremonial movements of the vessels, creating a 17-minute long series of glissandos, which I mapped on graph paper. These glissandos are animated by a percussionist, who strikes the vessels, and contextualised by an ensemble. The group often play in sync with the vessels, creating a strange, composite instrument of unstable pitch. This piece is ritualistic and lush, evoking a dreamed landscape that has outgrown its maps.
How would you describe your compositional style?
Alex: I like to think of my music as music to lean in to. It’s about creating a space for the listener to inhabit and in which they’re free to roam. I often think of it as a kind of sonic landscape, somewhere that’s evocative and stimulating but can mean many things to many people.
Joe: I want to write music that is lush and strange. Most of my music uses unusual tunings to create a harmonic world that feels both novel and familiar. While the chords may be strange, it often draws upon familiar musical rhetoric: the loops of electronic music, the lilt of a berceuse, and the cadential progressions of classical music.
How has your relationship with the LSO developed from being on the LSO Soundhub scheme to being an Associate?
Alex: LSO Soundhub has been a fantastic resource for me over the years. I’ve met friends through concerts and events, had works performed in previous gigs and even recorded my latest EP – Curved Form (No. 11) – in one of the rooms at LSO St Luke’s. This piece is actually the longest instrumental piece I’ve written and probably the most complex in terms of electronics so it’s been great to try out new things as part of the Soundhub process.
What have you found most rewarding, or even challenging, about curating the showcase?
Alex: It’s been great to collaborate with Marilyn, Joe and Arthur on the showcase and actually very easy to bring things together. A lot of our ideas were already very complimentary so it was all about reframing what we were doing in the context of each other’s work. That said, it’s been a very quick turnaround in terms of getting the piece written so it’s been all about trusting your first instincts, working fast and reflecting often to ensure you’re following a rich seam of ideas.
Joe: The biggest challenge has been getting to grips with the glass vessels. Their novel tunings required the creation of complex frequency graphs, which was enormously time consuming. I then had to really intuit them aurally, so that I could write the piece around them.
What does the coming year look like for you beyond the showcase?
Alex: I’m very grateful to have quite a few things in the pipeline at the moment. First up, I’m taking my concert series SOLO to the National Gallery with violist Stephen Upshaw, and then there’s a soon-to-be-announced SOLO gig coming up later in the summer too. I’m currently finishing up a couple of pieces for pianist Zubin Kanga and horn player Benjamin Goldscheider, which will both premiere later this year.
Joe: I’ve got some very different projects to dig into! First, I’m writing a piece for the Micklegate Singers, based on a beautiful piece of writing by the Quaker William Penn. Then, I’ll be writing a series of microtonal fugues.
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Wednesday 15 June 7pm | LSO St Luke's
Marilyn Herman 100 Full Moons of Autumn
Arthur Keegan-Bole Suite for Dorian
Alex Groves Four Forms (Horizon)
Joe Bates Straight Line Through A Landscape
Colin Alexander cello
Pasha Mansurov flute
Heather Roche clarinet
Jake Brown percussion
Angela Wai-Nok Hui percussion
Lucy Knight soprano
Juliet Kelly jazz alto
Darren Bloom conductor
Tickets: £8 (£6 concessions)